Disaster Act

Puerto Rico’s uprising and the instrumentalization of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Confrontation with Mark-Viverito. Photo by Omar Z. Robles.

This piece has been translated into Spanish as Acta Del Desastre.

On July 25, after 15 days of massive protests across the archipelago, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, announced his resignation. For the first time in the history of Puerto Rico, the people had successfully overthrown their governor. The uprising against Rosselló came on the heels of a 899-page leaked Telegram chat that confirmed what most Puerto Ricans already suspected: that Rosselló was a corrupt, inept leader leveraging their misery for personal gain, and at the expense of 4,645 dead Puerto Ricans. Among the most egregious of the remarks made by the governor in his texts was his mockery of the still rising casualty count from the 2017 hurricane, which he referred to as “cadavers to feed our crows."

Reeling from these deaths and the destruction, from the whiplash of Hurricane Maria and the failed relief response from the United States, Puerto Rican people were also exhausted from the economic violence of neoliberal austerity measures implemented by the U.S. Fiscal Control Board, infamously known in Puerto Rico as La Junta, and formed as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), signed in 2016 by former President Obama. Outraged Puerto Ricans took to the streets and were met with teargas, pepper spray, and rubber pellets by a militarized police force, or a fuerza de choque, decked out in tactical gear supplied by Safariland, the now notorious weapons-manufacturing firm owned by the former vice chair of the Whitney Museum Warren B. Kanders. For his dual positions as art patron and weapons profiteer, Kanders was pressured to resign after eight months of protests in New York City, and his departure ironically came hours after Governor Rosselló’s resignation. Today, the people of Puerto Rico contend with the open seat of power and the circling vultures looking to fill it from Washington, D.C., as they shift their galvanized power against La Junta.

As the people across the archipelago continued to gather in Old San Juan to demand the resignation of Governor Rosselló, in New York City hundreds of Puerto Ricans also gathered in Union Square, where they were bombarded by corporate media awaiting the arrivals of Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda and former city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito had already earned the disdain of many New Yorkers after voting to hire an additional 1,300 NYPD officers on the heels of the police murder of Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, and countless others. She also oversaw a rezoning in East Harlem that opened the floodgates of gentrification via Mayor de Blasio’s fraudulent affordable-housing plan. Press across the country would report that Lin-Manuel and his politician friend led this protest. But starstruck journalists failed to capture the dissenting voices in the crowd who demanded that Miranda and Mark-Viverito leave and not use the people’s spontaneous gathering as a photo op for their personal gain. Angry, displaced Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans directly confronted and denounced the so-called leading voices.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and his parents with the ousted governor and his family at the La Fortaleza. Photo credit: elnuevodia.com

In the political arena, both Democrats and Republicans court the Puerto Rican people’s support with shallow promises of advocacy, although the archipelago’s colonial status limits Puerto Rican involvement in U.S. politics. This courtship isn’t always drawn along party lines, particularly for those pro-statehood Puerto Ricans who will throw their support behind any elected official who takes up their cause. For example, while the embattled Puerto Rican governor Rosselló identified as a Democrat and rubbed elbows with New York governor Andrew Cuomo, he also had no qualms about begging Trump on national television to begin the process of accepting Puerto Rico as the 51st state. This plea blatantly ignored the plebiscite system that gives the decision about statehood to the Puerto Rican people as a fundamental right. That decision would be made through a vote but is itself part of a structure that leaves the Puerto Rican people firmly within the grip of United States, with no true power or self-determination. The vast majority of Puerto Ricans who vote every 10 years on their relationship status with the U.S. vote to remain a colony, a vote that for many is a vote against being absorbed completely into the American imperialist project. Independence is too big a risk for the masses who fear a massive economic crisis, like the kind Puerto Rico is already embroiled in now.

Puerto Ricans on the archipelago and in the diaspora have sensed the increasing urgency of their situation since the passing of PROMESA. The bill has empowered the profiteers of disaster capitalism, developers and entrepreneurs, from the likes of Wall Street tycoon billionaire John Paulson to cryptocreep and alleged pedophile Brock Pierce, currently building a private Bitcoin city inside Old San Juan. With bipartisan aid for land grabs by cronies like these and corporate conglomerates, Republicans and Democrats both pose a threat to sovereignty. However, the city of New York, a stronghold of the Democratic Party and historic home to generations of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, has facilitated an unquestioned and profound Puerto Rican allegiance to Democrats. It is through this unquestioned allegiance to the Democratic Party that rebellion against violent neoliberal measures is subdued and privatization or colonialist seizures of what remains of the land and industry are encouraged.

Lin-Manuel Miranda epitomizes the fraught connections between political machinations in New York and Puerto Rico today. Miranda, whose hip-hop musical In the Heights broke box-office records in 2005, became a national sensation ten years later with his follow-up musical Hamilton, first publicly performed for Barack Obama, during the 2009 White House poetry jam. Billed as a rap musical starring people of color in traditionally white roles, Hamilton chronicles the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a “founding father” of the United States. Obama would later say that appreciation for Hamilton was “the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on.” An almost mythological musical of America’s founding seems to garner as much bipartisan approval as plundering offshore lands. Since Hamilton’s debut, Miranda has become a household name and rock star to the NPR set. He used this reserve of cultural capital to advocate for the passing of PROMESA, which along with forming La Junta gutted social services in Puerto Rico, eliminated pensions for public-sector employees, and closed over 500 schools. The bill’s effect on the whole range of public programs and institutions in Puerto Rico rivals the violence of austerity measures imposed by the E.U. on the Greek people.

Rapping on the John Oliver show before the bill passed, Miranda cried, “Paul Ryan, I’ll come sing Hamilton at your house, I’ll do-si-do with Pelosi, I’ll even wear my Hamilton blouse!” But Lin-Manuel didn’t have to beg too much. PROMESA passed with bipartisan support, we suspect, because it opens up an array of economic possibilities for speculation and ensuing profit through the privatization of everything from the public education system to the beaches. At the same time, newly imposed sanctions made the few jobs that were still available on the long-suffering archipelago increasingly precarious. The economic situation preceding PROMESA had already forced a mass exodus of half a million residents from Puerto Rico to the U.S. between 2006 and 2014.The current mass migration of Puerto Ricans into the U.S. surpasses the Puerto Rican Great Migration during the post–World War II years. The lack of economic prospects for the Puerto Rican people induces migration and deliberately ignites speculation on Puerto Ricans’ rich lands, which are then wrestled from desperate hands at a bargain. However, Lin-Manuel’s stardom wasn’t enough on its own to thrust him into the political arena—his influence is also the effect of the calculated machinations of his very powerful father, New York political lobbyist Luis Miranda, Jr.

Luis Miranda’s resume spans four decades in politics, with many blurred lines between his services to the public and private sector. He was Hispanic-affairs advisor to Mayor Koch in the ’80s, then appointed by Koch to the board of the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, and later named chair by Mayor Giuliani in 1993. He is the founder of the nonprofit Hispanic Federation and cofounder of the lobbying firm the MirRam Group, a self-described “independent consulting firm designed to offer clients the benefit of their deep understanding of New York’s political, corporate, labor, and non-profit landscapes.” He has managed the senate campaigns of Charles Schumer, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and boasts of being “the lead consultant in the election of Letitia James as public advocate, the first African-American woman elected citywide.” Luis Miranda is also heavily involved in his son’s career decisions, particularly as they relate to Lin-Manuel’s political forays. Lin-Manuel has expanded his sphere of influence within the political networks between New York and Puerto Rico, and Mr. Miranda in turn has an outrageously popular public-relations song-and-dance man at his disposal. Lin-Manuel becomes the face of political advocacy for Puerto Rico guided by his father’s business desires.

In 2017, Lin-Manuel announced his intention to perform a limited run of Hamilton at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, under the pretext of raising funds for the performing arts through the creation of the Flamboyan Arts Fund with his father’s Flamboyan Foundation. This proposal was met by fierce protests, as students rebuked him for his advocacy of the PROMESA bill. Students would later stage a second and third protest in the beginning of 2019, this time joined by faculty, to protest the musical that celebrates the same settler-colonial power with its neoliberal boot at the neck of Puerto Rico. In response, the performance was moved to the Centro de Bellas Artes, a change of venue facilitated by Governor Rosselló himself. This all occurred amid the University of Puerto Rico’s desperate attempts to fend off privatization efforts, in part by doubling tuition costs. Primary schools were also facing similar economic restructuring under Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, who was brought to Puerto Rico to consolidate public primary schools while implementing a charter school system. Luis Miranda’s Flamboyan Foundation is listed as a client and collaborative partner of Keleher’s firm, Keleher and Associates. She is currently under federal investigation for conspiracy to commit fraud, theft, electronic fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to money launder during her time in Puerto Rico in this role. While Lin-Manuel proposed a palliative performance of mainland U.S. history played by people of color, his father was in the wings collaborating with a corrupt conspirator seeking personal gain from Puerto Rico’s economic crisis.

Of the many negotiations that are presented as relief work, the corporate takeover of the coffee industry in historically coffee-cultivating towns such as Adjuntas and Jayuya presents the best example of how disaster capitalism facilitates punitive austerity measures and instrumentalizes arts and culture to present a progressive political facade for such measures. In 2018, Lin-Manuel Miranda became the public face of a multimillion-dollar, five-year coffee-industry relief effort launched and organized by his father. The funding for this massive buyout would come from the Hispanic Federation, founded by Miranda’s father, and Nespresso, who would each invest $1 million. Starbucks would kick in another $475,000 and donate 2 million climate-resistant seeds. The Rockefeller Foundation provided another $500,000, and international nonprofit TechnoServe was chosen to administer the project.

The Hispanic Federation’s introduction of large corporate heavy hitters to the mountains of Jayuya granted Luis Miranda an unprecedented amount of power and influence over the ailing coffee industry. He can now position himself as the broker of the island’s assets, arranging the corporate takeover of Puerto Rico while simultaneously putting forward a narrative of relief, revival, and rescue fed to the Puerto Rican people and the diaspora via the wholesome Lin-Manuel, who narrates the tale of Puerto Rico se levanta (Puerto Rico will rise).

Even before Maria devastated the land, regulations imposed in 2015 by the Puerto Rican government cut 20,000 jobs and threatened the livelihood of the remaining coffee growers. When Hurricane Maria hit, the ensuing crisis provided the perfect cover for corporate entities to swoop in and take what Coca-Cola hadn’t already acquired. These corporations will reap maximum benefits from tax breaks courtesy of Act 20 and Act 22. Passed in 2012, Act 20, the Export Services Act, and Act 22, the Act to Promote the Relocation of Investors to Puerto Rico, were enacted to promote the immigration of high-net-worth individuals and their businesses to Puerto Rico with the incentive of paying no income taxes on all passive income. Puerto Rico was already suffering from a massive recession in 2008, and its vulnerability made these changes to the tax code a strategic point of interest for the rich, who formed the 20/22 Act Society, with the stated goal of developing “an ongoing feedback relationship with the governmental, private, and entrepreneurial sectors to ensure our concerns, objectives, and recommendations are heard, as an effort to preserve the benefits granted.” It is within this context that Lin-Manuel and Luis Miranda have leveraged their public personas and political connections to welcome these corporate investments with open arms, knowing that the Puerto Rican people, and in this case coffee farmers, stand to lose much more than they will gain.

Puerto Ricans have much cause for concern when it comes to Mr. Miranda, who although no longer at the helm of the Hispanic Federation continues to steer its direction. He has secured an exorbitant amount of funding from the office of former NYC council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, while acting as her chief political consultant. Despite the glaring conflict of interest involved in this transaction, Mark-Viverito and Miranda were able to withstand scandal and walk away largely unscathed. They simply have too much power, and they continue to consolidate and expand through the super PAC Latino Victory Fund, where Miranda serves as board chair and Mark-Viverito as interim president. The Latino Victory fund was founded in 2014, and its mission is to grow Latino political power by increasing Latino representation at every level of government. One can imagine that the force of this super PAC will be behind Mark-Viverito in her campaign to replace Congressman José E. Serrano (D-NY), who will not seek reelection. Serrano represents the 15th District of the South Bronx, one of the few majority-Latino districts in the country and a coveted one, as it has been in the hands of Puerto Ricans for over 40 years. A congressperson representing their own district in New York could also play a supporting role for political maneuvers in Puerto Rico as a voting member of the house of representatives. With the chain of events in Puerto Rico unfolding as they have, a sober look at Miranda’s power moves on the island is urgent. Miranda’s hand in the super PAC Latino Victory Fund positions specific candidates in strategic seats of power coupled with the influence of the MirRam Group. His influence with the Hispanic Federation, his philanthropic endeavors with Flamboyan Foundation, and the nefarious relationships these organizations obscure are poised to obtain government contracts and grant monies to manage the implementation of newly imposed social-services mandates. In short, Miranda and his associates are pulling off a soft coup on the archipelago.

A look at the Hispanic Federation’s board makes Mr. Miranda’s insertion into Puerto Rico’s industries and local politics that much more troubling. According to the National Institute for Latino Policy, the Hispanic Federation board has largely been made up in the past years of managers from the following companies (of which at least two are clients of MirRam): Aetna, Banco Espírito Santo, Comcast Corporation, ESPN Deportes, GE Capital, Hess Corporation, Huron, Latin2Latin Marketing + Communications, MamásLatinas, Nielsen, One World Sports, Telemundo 47, The Baeza Group LLC, UBS Financial Services Inc., Univision Television Group, Verizon, and Wells Fargo. Mr. Miranda has already demonstrated his willingness to impose his political power and influence through the vehicle of the nonprofit he founded to serve the interests of the clients he retains through the MirRam Group. So when an opinion piece for the Hill called for congress to “democratize the recovery by empowering a committee composed of Puerto Rican civic, community and nonprofit leaders to oversee disaster recovery dollars,” it was enthusiastically tweeted by the Hispanic Federation and retweeted by Miranda—predators sniffing at their prey. Much like Lin-Manuel’s musical imagines people of color at the helm of an American revolution that gained its wealth through dispossession and racial capitalism, Luis Miranda and the Hispanic Federation call for business as usual to proceed, with powerful Puerto Ricans at the reigns.

Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and abroad in the diaspora today are living with many uncertainties, but they are also guided by a spirit of having “nothing left to lose.” That spirit is for many a decolonial position in perpetuity. On the streets of La Perla and in the Bronx, in Ponce and Pennsylvania, in Jayuya and Humboldt Park, on the heels of Rosselló’s July 25 announcement, the question lingers: What happens now?

On August 1, the day before he was scheduled to officially relinquish the office, Rosselló made a few key appointments. Jennifer M. Storipan was named as executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., (PRFAA) and James Robert “Bo” Collins as executive director of Invest Puerto Rico. Storipan will serve as a liaison between the government of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., implementing Puerto Rico’s public policy in Washington (and vice versa). Collins’s appointment is much more sinister. Collins is infamous for his precarious dealings as the president of MotherRock, an energy-sector hedge fund. He is now the CEO and founder of Renovatio PR, a digital-technology incubator for different start-ups around crypto, blockchain, and fintech application, yet another crypto pioneer sinking his teeth into Puerto Rico. His appointment as executive director of economic-development project Invest PR is especially problematic precisely because the model is already designed as a government-sanctioned speculative project to capitalize on the vulnerable state Puerto Rico has been forced into. On that same day, Rosselló’s two appointments were followed by the confirmation of Wilmer Ocasio Ibarra in the position of U.S. marshal for the district of Puerto Rico by the federal senate judiciary committee. Ocasio Ibarra was handpicked by Trump himself to execute fugitive operations, the management of criminal assets, the operation of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program, and the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, as well as federal arrest warrants. As the people of Puerto Rico continue to rise up, the appointment of this figure poses a serious threat, as the detention of new political prisoners is inevitable. Meanwhile, freedom fighters Nina Droz Franco, Ana Belén Montes, and Noel D. Cruz continue to be held by the federal government, with Franco and Cruz imprisoned for participation in 2017 and 2016 protests.

The final and most egregious act Rosselló bestowed on the Puerto Rican people was the shadowy inauguration of Pedro Pierluisi to the seat of governor of Puerto Rico. This appointment was contested and overruled by the Puerto Rican senate, making Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez next in line for succession in the absence of a secretary of state. But it’s worth reflecting on who Rosselló preferred to take the reins. Pierluisi has been in Puerto Rican government for decades and served as secretary of justice under former governor Pedro Rosselló, the father of the embattled departing governor. After completing his appointment as resident commissioner, Pierluisi went to work for the law firm O’Neill & Borges, hired by the Fiscal Control Board overseeing PROMESA. The Fiscal Control Board is led by Republican appointee José B. Carrión III, who is also Pierluisi’s soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law. Carrión III is part of the influential Carrión family in Puerto Rico that founded the bank Banco Popular. Pierluisi has long been in a defensive position to fend off conflict-of-interest criticisms. Three weeks after his election in 2008 to the post of resident commissioner, his wife María Elena Carrión set up a financial-advisory firm, Multicultural Capital, to assist interested parties in finding bargains on distressed financial assets in Puerto Rico. Pierluisi introduced legislation that directly benefited two of his wife’s clients, Fundamental Advisors and Och-Ziff Capital Management. Together, Pierluisi and Carrión saw their net worth quadruple as a result of this arrangement. Pierluisi has shown throughout his career that he would use the power of his office for personal gain. An overwhelming response from the people and internal conflicts with the Puerto Rican senate made his proposed governorship impossible, and the legal order of succession has been honored for now. Yet, already on the streets of Puerto Rico and across social media, calls for #wandarenuncia have caught momentum, and the occupation of the governor’s seat continues to be vulnerable.

The dread in the looming question of “What happens after Rosselló?” is answered in part by these contested appointments. But the uprising forges on, and Puerto Ricans continue to take the streets, flooding La Milla de Oro, Puerto Rico’s Wall Street, and La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion, while contending with a fast-moving chain of appointments and power grabs and positioning themselves to fight the new configuration of colonial forces that formed in tandem with the Fiscal Control Board. Father and son Miranda and company are currently riding the people’s wave, publicly criticizing Pierluisi, La Junta, and Rosselló’s remaining administration while waving black-and-white flags, an obvious attempt to get in front of this surge of people power to galvanize it for their own agenda. They will present themselves as the alternative good guys to the status quo, and they will fill the air with progressive slogans and say all of the right things, citing LGBTQ rights, black liberation, and Latinidad, while benefiting from the imposition of the most damning economic conditions on the poor and working-class people of Puerto Rico. The archipelago has a long history of corrupt governors and impositions from Washington, D.C., but this new neoliberal model of “public-private partnerships” occurs at a time when global real-estate makes up 60 percent of the world’s assets, worth $217 trillion, thirty-six times the value of all the gold ever mined. Given the decaying state of U.S. politics, and the circus of corruption from both Democrat and Republican parties, it behooves the Puerto Rican people to aggressively reject the advances of all of the political forces of the U.S. regardless of how they are affiliated locally in the fight for a free Puerto Rico. Boricuas be warned. Ojo.